'Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire' by Chalmers Johnson (2000)

A selection from Chalmers Johnson's Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2000.

For Bernard Lewis's translation of Osama Bin Laden's Declaration of Jihad see here.

Introduction written after septempter 11, 2001

In a speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush posed this question: “Why do they hate us?” His answer: “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote.” He commented later that he was amazed “that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. . . . I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.” But how “good” are we, really? If we’re so good, why do we inspire such hatred abroad? What have we done to bring so much “blowback” upon ourselves?

This book is a guide to some of the policies during and after the Cold War that generated, and continue to generate, blowback—a term the CIA invented to describe the likelihood that our covert operations in other people’s countries would result in retaliations against Americans, civilian and military, at home and abroad. Blowback was first published in the spring of 2000, some eighteen months before 9/11. My intention in writing it was to warn my fellow Americans about the nature and conduct of U.S. foreign policy over the previous half-century, focusing particularly on the period after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. I argued that many aspects of what the American government had done around the world virtually invited retalitaory attacks from nations and peoples on the receiving end. I did not predict the events of 9/11, but I did clearly state that acts of retaliation were coming and should be anticipated. “World politics in the twenty-first century,” I wrote, “will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century—that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post–Cold War world.”

The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not “attack America,” as political leaders and news media in the United States have tried to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders, whose innocence is, of course, no different from that of the civilians killed by American bombs in Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It was probably the most striking instance in the history of international relations of the use of political terrorism to influence events.


Instead of demobilizing after the Cold War, the United States imprudently committed itself to maintaining a global empire. This book is an account of the resentments our policies have built up and of the kinds of economic and political retribution that, particularly in Asia, may be their harvest in the twenty-first century.


Certainly, the one subject beyond discussion at such moments is the fact that, a decade after the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of American troops, supplied with the world’s most advanced weaponry, sometimes including nuclear arms, are stationed on over sixty-one base complexes in nineteen countries worldwide, using the Department of Defense’s narrowest definition of a “major installation”; if one included every kind of installation that houses representatives of the American military, the number would rise to over eight hundred.

All this is almost too obvious to state—and so is almost never said. It is simply not a matter for discussion, much less of debate in the land of the last imperial power. Perhaps similar thinking is second nature to any imperium. Perhaps the Romans did not find it strange to have their troops in Gaul, nor the British in South Africa. But what is unspoken is no less real, nor does it lack consequences just because it is not part of any ongoing domestic discussion.
I believe it is past time for such a discussion to begin, for Americans to consider why we have created an empire—a word from which we shy away—and what the consequences of our imperial stance may be for the rest of the world and for ourselves. Not so long ago, the way we garrisoned the world could be discussed far more openly and comfortably because the explanation seemed to lie at hand—in the very existence of the Soviet Union and of communism. [...] American military forces could have been withdrawn from Italy, as well as from other foreign bases, long ago. That they were not and that Washington instead is doing everything in its considerable powers to perpetuate Cold War structures, even without the Cold War’s justification, places such overseas deployments in a new light. They have become striking evidence, for those who care to look, of an imperial project that the Cold War obscured. The byproducts of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans—tourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces—that can have lethal results.

I believe the profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems and the Asian economic meltdown, as well as the continuous trail of military “accidents” and of terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies, are all portents of a twenty-first-century crisis in America’s informal empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others. To predict the future is an undertaking no thoughtful person would rush to embrace. What form our imperial crisis is likely to take years or even decades from now is, of course, impossible to know. But history indicates that, sooner or later, empires do reach such moments, and it seems reasonable to assume that we will not miraculously escape that fate.
What we have freed ourselves of, however, is any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe. Most Americans are probably unaware of how Washington exercises its global hegemony, since so much of this activity takes place either in relative secrecy or under comforting rubrics. Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us. Without good explanations, we cannot possibly produce policies that will bring us sustained peace and prosperity in a post–Cold War world.

There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation, and acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future.
The term “blowback,” which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use, is starting to circulate among students of international relations. It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of “terrorists” or “drug lords” or “rogue states” or “illegal arms merchants” often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.

One man’s terrorist is, of course, another man’s freedom fighter, and what U.S. officials denounce as unprovoked terrorist attacks on its innocent citizens are often meant as retaliation for previous American imperial actions. Terrorists attack innocent and undefended American targets precisely because American soldiers and sailors firing cruise missiles from ships at sea or sitting in B-52 bombers at extremely high altitudes or supporting brutal and repressive regimes from Washington seem invulnerable. As members of the Defense Science Board wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors [that is, terrorists from one country attacking in another].”

The most direct and obvious form of blowback often occurs when the victims fight back after a secret American bombing, or a U.S.-sponsored campaign of state terrorism, or a CIA-engineered overthrow of a foreign political leader. All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback. For example, it is estimated that from the Gulf War of 1991 through 1998, the U.S.-sponsored blockade of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has helped contribute to the deaths of an estimated half million Iraqi civilians due to disease, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care. President Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, takes pride in the thought that this blockade has been “unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history.” By 1999, it had still not brought down Saddam Hussein, the single-minded goal of American policy in the area, but it had ensured that surviving Iraqis were likely to hold a grudge against the American government and its citizens.

Blowback itself can lead to more blowback, in a spiral of destructive behavior. A good illustration of this lies in the government’s reaction to the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, with the loss of 12 American and 212 Kenyan and Tanzanian lives and some 4,500 injured. The U.S. government promptly placed the blame on Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had long denounced his country’s rulers and their American allies. On August 20, the United States retaliated by firing nearly eighty cruise missiles (at a cost of $750,000 each) into a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, and an old mujahideen camp site in Afghanistan. (One missile went four hundred miles off course and landed in Pakistan.) Both missile targets had been identified by American intelligence as enterprises or training areas associated with bin Laden or his followers. It was soon revealed, however, that the intelligence on both places had been faulty and that neither target could be connected with those who were suspected of attacking the embassies. On September 2, 1998, the U.S. secretary of defense said that he had been unaware that the plant in Khartoum made medicines, not nerve gas, when he recommended that it be attacked. He also admitted that the plant’s connection to bin Laden was, at best, “indirect.” Nonetheless, President Clinton continued to insist that he had repelled an “imminent threat to our national security,” and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Sudan a “viper’s nest of terrorists.” Government spokesmen continue to justify these attacks as “deterring” terrorism, even if the targets proved to be irrelevant to any damage done to facilities of the United States. In this way, future blowback possibilities are seeded into the world. The same spokesmen ignore the fact that the alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings, bin Laden, is a former protégé of the United States. When America was organizing Afghan rebels against the USSR in the 1980s, he played an important role in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and only turned against the United States in 1991 because he regarded the stationing of American troops in his native Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf War as a violation of his religious beliefs. Thus, the attacks on our embassies in Africa, if they were indeed his work, are an instance of blowback rather than unprovoked terrorism. Instead of bombing sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in response, the United States might better have considered reducing or removing our large-scale and provocative military presence in Saudi Arabia.

Needless to say, blowback is not exclusively a problem faced by Americans. [...] Israel’s greatest single political problem is the daily threat of blowback from the Palestinian people and their Islamic allies because of Israeli policies of displacing Palestinians from their lands and repressing those that remain under their jurisdiction. The United States, however, is the world’s most prominent target for blowback, being the world’s lone imperial power, the primary source of the sort of secret and semisecret operations that shore up repressive regimes, and by far the largest seller of weapons generally.

It is typical of an imperial people to have a short memory for its less pleasant imperial acts, but for those on the receiving end, memory can be long indeed.

In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows. Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American empire have sown has been kept secret.

America's "dirty hands" make even the most well-intentioned statement about human rights or terrorism seem hypocritical... .

It is time to realize, however, that the real dangers to America today come ... [from] ... our own ideological rigidity, our deep-seated belief in our own propaganda. As sociologists Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver warn, “There are no credible aggressive new powers that can provoke the breakdown of the U.S.-centered world system, but the United States has even greater capabilities than Britain did a century ago to convert its declining hegemony into an exploitative domination. If the system eventually breaks down, it will be primarily because of U.S. resistance to adjustment and accommodation. And conversely, U.S. adjustment and accommodation to the rising economic power of the East Asian region is an essential condition for a non-catastrophic transition to a new world order.”

The United States today desperately needs a new analysis of its role in a post–Cold War world and of the sorts of policies that might prevent another major war, like its last three, in East Asia. Some of the significant changes to come in East Asia are already visible: China’s increasing attempt to emulate high-growth economies elsewhere in Asia; the reunification of Korea; Japan’s need to overcome its political paralysis; America’s confusion over how to adjust to a self-confident China and to a more independent Japan; the growing importance of Southeast Asia as a new economic center of gravity. American policy making needs to be taken away from military planners and military-minded civilians, including those in the White House, who today dominate Washington policy making toward the area. American ambassadors and diplomats in Asia should have at least an elementary knowledge of East Asian history, languages, and aspirations. The United States desperately needs options for dealing with crises other than relying on the carrier task force, cruise missiles, and the unfettered flow of capital, just as it needs to overcome the complacency and arrogance that characterize American official attitudes toward Asia today.
Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The innocent of the twenty-first century are going to harvest unexpected blowback disasters from the imperialist escapades of recent decades. Although most Americans may be largely ignorant of what was, and still is, being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep price—individually and collectively—for their nation’s continued efforts to dominate the global scene. Before the damage of heedless triumphalist acts and the triumphalist rhetoric and propaganda that goes with them becomes irreversible, it is important to open a new discussion of our global role during and after the Cold War.

A classic model of the disaster is a U.S. decision to "help" an ally faced with domestic dissidence or even insurrection. First, the "threatened" country is declared part of America's vital interests; next, American military personnel... are sent in to "assist" the government. The foreignness of this effort as well as its indifference to democracy and local conditions only accelerate the insurrectionary movement. In the end an American protectorate is replaced by a virulently anti-American regime. This scenario played itself out in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iran in our time. Now it appears it might do so in Saudi Arabia.

Since the Gulf War the United States has maintained around thirty-five thousand troops in Saudi Arabia. Devoutly Muslim citizens of that kingdom see their presence as a humiliation to the country and an affront to their religion. Dissident Saudis have launched attacks against Americans and against the Saudi regime itself. After the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments near Dhahran killed nineteen American airmen, the international relations commentator William Pfaff offered the reasonable prediction, “Within 15 years at most, if present American and Saudi Arabian policies are pursued, the Saudi monarchy will be overturned and a radical and anti-American government will take power in Riyadh.” Yet American foreign policy remains on autopilot, instead of withdrawing from a place where a U.S. presence is only making a dangerous situation worse.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes... American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives-military force. It no longer has a full repertoire of skills, including a seasoned, culturally and linguistically expert diplomatic corps; truly viable international institutions that the American public supports both politically and financially and that can give legitimacy to American efforts abroad; economic policies that effectively leverage the tremendous power of the American market into desired foreign responses; or even an ability to express American values without being charged, accurately, with hopeless hypocrisy. The use of cruise missiles and B-2 bombers to achieve humanitarian objectives is a sign of how unbalanced our foreign policy apparatus has become.

Americans like to think (or pretend) that their economics is a branch of science, not a fighting doctrine to defend and advance their interests against those of others. ...they regard the tenets of a laissez-faire economy—with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government—as self-evident truths.

...buoyed by what the apologist for America Francis Fukuyama has called the “end of history”—the belief that with the end of the Cold War all alternatives to the American economic system had been discredited American leaders became hubristic. Although there is no evidence that Washington hatched a conspiracy to extend the scope of its global hegemony, a sense of moral superiority on the part of some and of opportunism on the part of others more than sufficed to create a similar effect.

Nixon decided to end the Bretton Woods system because the Vietnam War had imposed such excessive expenditures on the United States that it was hemorrhaging money. He concluded that the government could no longer afford to exchange its currency for a fixed value of gold. A more effective answer would have been to end the Vietnam War and balance the federal budget. Instead, what actually occurred was that the dollar and other currencies were allowed to "float"-- that is, to be converted into other currencies at whatever rate the market determined.

The historian, business executive, and novelist John Ralston Saul described Nixon's action as "perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world. The West was returned to the monetary barbarism and instability of the l9th century."


The IMF is essentially a covert arm of the U.S. Treasury, yet beyond congressional oversight because it is formally an international organization. Its voting rules ensure that it is dominated by the United States and its allies. India and China have fewer votes in the IMF, for example, than the Netherlands. As the prominent Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs puts its, “Not unlike the days when the British Empire placed senior officials directly into the Egyptian and Ottoman [and also the Chinese] financial ministries, the IMF is insinuated into the inner sanctums of nearly 75 developing country governments around the world—countries with a combined population of some 1.4 billion.”

Globalization seems to boil down to the spread of poverty to every country except the United States.

We Americans deeply believe that our role in the world is virtuous- that our actions are almost invariably for the good of others as well as ourselves. Even when our country's actions have led to disaster, we assume that the motives behind them were honorable. But the evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the 5 United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.

The world is not a safer place as a result.

In the long run, the people of the United States are neither militaristic enough nor rich enough to engage in the perpetual police actions, wars, and bailouts their govemment's hegemonic policies will require.

The American armed forces can unquestionably deliver death and destruction to any target on earth and expect little in the way of retaliation. Even so, these forces voraciously demand more and newer equipment, while the Pentagon now more or less sets its own agenda. Accustomed to life in a half-century-old, well-established empire, the corporate interests of the armed forces have begun to take precedence over the older idea that the military is only one of several means that a democratic government might employ to implement its policies. As their size and prominence grow over time, the armed forces of an empire tend to displace other instruments of foreign policy implementation. What also grows is militarism... .

"Blowback" is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown.

David Calleo, a professor of international politics, has observed

The international system breaks down not only because unbalanced and aggressive new powers seek to dominate their neighbors, but also because declining powers, rather than adjusting and accommodating, try to cement their slipping preeminence into an exploitative hegemony.

The signs of such an exploitative hegemony are already with us: increasing estrangement between populations and their governments; a determination of elites to hang on to power despite a loss of moral authority; the appearance of militarism and the separation of the military from the society it is supposed to serve; fierce repression (the huge and still growing American prison population and rising enthusiasm for the death penalty may be symptomatic of this); and an economic crisis that is global in nature.